In 1993, I joined a small consulting group, hoping to capitalize on Russian manufacturing capability, currently underutilized with the recent collapse of the Soviet Union. Additionally, this was a time when low raw materials costs provided added incentive. Our company began as Synchron, Inc., with one president, four VP’s and one clerk (the President’s wife).
We met in Florida to kick this venture off. Our goal: Find Russian companies to manufacture products popular in the west, for mutual economic benefit. For example, low-end printers marketed through Xerox, automotive brake parts marketed through Lucas Brake Systems (Great Britain), etc., etc. Steve Griffiths, our President, has had many years experience with Booz-Allen consulting and other high level connections. One of our VP’s, Ilya Kogan, is a Russian expat with ideas wider (wilder) than all belief. Following are excerpts from journal entries taken during the next four years of this engagement. Maurice Nobert (a peer manager at Intel from back in the day) and Ed McCarthy, rounded out our team of six. I was the quality guy for the effort.
The Synchron team: Steve, Maurice, Ilya, Ed, Bob, Sue.
Steve’s experience with Booz-Allen was our connection with potential global entities. The Booz mantra is taking on clients’ complex problems at the intersection of technology and mission, focused on innovation to always press the boundaries of what is possible. The talent and dedication of the people of Booz-Allen formed the foundation of its success. Incidentally, Booz was named “the world’s most profitable spy organization.” According to an Information Week piece from 2002, Booz-Allen had “more than one thousand former intelligence officers on its staff.”
My Russian task began in February, 1994, flying to St. Petersburg, Russia, from Cleveland, Ohio. Ilya and Ed had met in Moscow a few weeks earlier, setting the stage for future business connections. Following are reports from my first Russian visit:
St. Petersburg was founded in 1703 on the banks of the Neva river, close to the Gulf of Finland, with access to the North Atlantic. Founded by Peter the Great, it remained the capital of the Russian Empire for just over 200 years. At one time, it boasted one of the most ambitious cultural centers of the world.
Its name was changed to “Petrograd” in 1914 at the start of WWI, then to Leningrad in 1917, where it remained until Communism fell in Russia after WWII. It has remained St. Petersburg since.
Booz-Allen was working with a steel company in St. Petersburg, (Stoomhammer) LZTL, with limited success. Steve had agreed to help their effort, and asked me to spend a few weeks on that job, to support the Booz engineer, Ed Frey.
The LZTL factory is in a lot of trouble since their Russian market has almost dried up. Only some of the managers accept the Booz initiative. Others are openly hostile.
We were picked up at the hotel at 7:30 on our first day. Then about 35 minutes across the city to the plant. We get back to the hotel at about 7:30 in the evening. The days are real short here so its mostly in the dark. The water in the plant is surely not for drinking. When you flush the toilet it leaves suds in the bowl with a definite color. I drink diet coke here and bottled water at the plant.
It’s interesting, in the plant to save energy costs, the elevators are shut down at 6:30 pm. Whenever we work after that we have to walk down from the 7th floor. Good thing its down and not up. Small blessings.
Ilya has connected me with a Russian technologist, Boris Pavlotsky, to further the Synchron effort in Russia. Boris speaks fluent English, with his native Russian and far reaching technical connections. So I will work the Booz job tomorrow and Thursday, then work two potential Xerox printer manufacturers with Boris in Moscow on Friday. We’ll take a night train (Thursday) to Moscow (a Pullman type with separate compartments) and line up the Synchron effort on Saturday, then back to St. Petersburg, Monday night.
I booked myself into the Commodore Hotel Ship parked in the bay. It’s been made over as a land-locked floating hotel, with all the amenities of a small rooming house. Much better use of the money!
I just finished breakfast, then walked around the ship on the open deck. It’s 8:30, only a little light. The days are short here. There are several people already out on the ice fishing. The fish they catch are only about 3 to 6 inches long, kind of like sardines. But one guy had a small bag filled with them. The people on the ice are real friendly even though we don’t communicate.
2nd day back at the Booz job. Joe Metz, the big Booz-Allen guy who is Ed Frey’s boss, is in for a few days. That means busy, busy. I sat through the weekly sales meeting today and felt like a Bozo not knowing what was going on. After the meeting I made an executive decision and told Ed I couldn’t get a handle on it part time and that I wanted to overwhelm it for two weeks full time. That will be the two weeks before I fly home.
I’ll go to Moscow on the midnight train Friday night to hold training sessions on Saturday for Synchron. That is the beginning of the Quality Training courses I’ll deliver here in Russia. Then I’ll ride back to St. Pete Sunday night. I feel good about the decision and look forward to the time at Booz.
One thing about the Russians I don’t think I’ve mentioned, they are smoking themselves to death. Someone said, there are two smoking sections, smoking and chain-smoking. It has warmed up here, most of the snow is gone from the roads.
As Boris and I were walking from the Trade show in St. Petersburg this week to the hotel, a funny looking vehicle came across the ice near the bank. A guy climbed out the top and hollered in Russian. Boris talked with him for a while, then Boris invited me to take a ride on the thing, cost $5.00. The guy was a little scraggly type, about 60, and his vehicle had one big propeller in the air and it would cruise about 40 mph just off the ice surface. It was a hoot. The guy had pictures of trips he had made to the waters (ice) above Siberia and the big mammoth tusks they had found. That was when we stopped and spoke to some of the ice fishermen.
Sunday began on the midnight train to Moscow in St. Petersburg. Ilya & I were helped onto the train by two Russian businessmen interested in Synchron. After about 8 hours in Pullman type sleepers we pulled into the Moscow train station. We struggled off the train with the Xerox printer and suitcases and were met by Yuri who put our stuff in a small car.
It was snowing lightly but not too cold as Russian weather goes. Yuri is a gentleman Ilya met in his Synchron network search; retired, formerly a member of the government standards agency who did what we call in the states Source Inspection. That is, he would go to the plants and pass judgement on whether the product passed the specifications and if the product could be shipped.
Ilya says this is an important group of people who can support our Synchron effort as it develops. So that was our driver. Ilya feels positive about Yuri, 1) he is retired and always available, 2) he has a car, 3) he speaks a little English, and 4) he is genuinely interested in the stuff we are doing. He would like Yuri to be my man in Moscow. We’ll see…
Ilya said as we packed the stuff into the car, “there is one problem. Where to get breakfast!” He made an executive decision to go to McDonalds, so away we went. We got there at 9:00 but it didn’t open until 10:00 so we got back into the car and Yuri drove us around the center of the city, pointing out the Kremlin, Red Square, the parliament building (Russian white house) that was shelled during the last fracas. Anyway, my first meal in Moscow was a Big Mac. That was my first meal in Singapore too.
We then made our way to Ilya’s apartment, the base of our operations here in Moscow. It is a two small bedroom, toilet with bath/shower, and kitchen with a small table on the 7th floor. The elevator will hold only two people so Ilya came up after Yuri & I. Ilya called a business contact while I was sending a telegram, who showed up about an hour after we did. We then presented the Synchron pitch, got his comments and negotiated some changes to better fit the Russian psyche.
It was a good session and Ilya asked me if I thought we could use Yuri. I agreed. We will prepare 6 to 10 people for the Certified Quality Engineer exam to serve on our technical search team. Those who make the cut will begin the training/self-education after my trip to the U.S. I will be able to pull the stuff together and bring it back with me.
Ilya talked to one of his neighbors, Vchyslav, who happens to be, or was, a member of the KGB. His father was a colonel in the secret service. Anyway, he wanted to have dinner with Ilya and drink some vodka & talk about Synchron. Ilya had told him a great deal about the operation. Ilya was concerned about Yuri the driver, who had just brought up a couple of loaves of bread, since in Ilya’s opinion, Yuri couldn’t stand Vchyslav. He was also concerned about my not drinking vodka with this important guest.
I asked Ilya if the guest would be offended if I didn’t drink with him? He implied he would, but that if he (Ilya) could explain why I didn’t drink it might be ok. I just said its against my religion! Ilya said that will probably be ok, continuing to mutter and comment and discuss and consider. I walked away from that discussion and just laid down, it was beyond my control!
I dozed a bit and about 8:00 Ilya called from the kitchen and said they were waiting for me. So I entered the small kitchen where Vchyslav, Yuri, and Ilya were sitting ready to dig in. The table was set with stuff that looked like finger food on different dishes. It was obvious one plate was small pieces of some kind of fish. I couldn’t guess what was on the other three plates. We started with a potato which I was told had to be peeled. Vchyslav quickly showed me how to peel a potato and gave me the one he peeled. Ilya explained to me the one plate was pig fat which they liked to eat when drinking vodka. There was a bottle of vodka on the table. Another plate had cut up onions in vinegar and oil. Another was a vegetable that tasted pretty good but nothing I recognized. So I put a few bits of fish, some onions, and a slice of dark bread on my plate with the peeled potato and started to just nibble ever so slowly so it would not look like I needed anything else.
And the conversation started. All in fast Russian about who knows what. Once in a while Ilya would turn to me and say something like, “…we’re talking about Yeltsin’s state of the union address….” and away they would go. After other toasts and “we’re talking about’s…” (Yuri only sipped at his first small glass, never taking a second shot). Vchyslav was beginning to feel no pain, with Ilya somewhere in between and the dinner went on.
The stuff on the small table would shift when someone would move their elbows. They ate like hungry farm hands, forking a piece of fish, a cube of pig fat, onions, etc., all the while talking a mile a minute. It was interesting to watch their body language and guess what they were talking about. On one occasion Ilya said they were talking about churches which I had guessed since Vchyslav had gone into the posture of praying and crossing himself.
If you can picture this scene, Yuri in a red plaid cotton shirt with a paisley tie, Vchyslav in a nice white shirt and tie (a rough Kirk Douglas type about my age) doing most of the talking but not a word of English, just a big grin all the time, and Ilya (Danny DeVito, only a little more obnoxious, with a short beard) stabbing food across the table
After dinner, Ilya did the Russian hitchhiker thing and he and I were on the road in about two minutes. The hitchhiker things goes like this: You simply step to the street and put your hand out like you are pointing at the street. Anyone who wants will stop, and you will say where you want to go and then negotiate a price. It is three times as much if you speak English. The rule when I go with Boris or Ilya is to remain mute while in the car. That keeps the price at Russian standards. You never stop a car if there is more than one occupant. This way we can get anywhere for about $3.00.
After connecting with important people/things/locations, it was time for supper. Ilya decided he had some “things” he could fix that turned out to be what I would call Russian perogies. They were very good. But the story here focuses on Vchyslav. This guy was in love with Glenn Miller, the WWII band leader. Ilya didn’t want to invite him to dinner but couldn’t avoid it, since he called and was pretty drunk.
We had quite a lot of work with questions that needed to be be translated, so quite a lot of work. Anyway, Ilya didn’t want Vchyslav to come since he was drunk and would waste a lot of Ilya’s time. So we agreed that he would be invited, and at the last minute when the stuff was ready, I would ask him if I could listen to Glenn Miller shortly after dinner. I would go to his apartment for about 20 minutes then excuse myself & get away clean, with Ilya working on the translation. Sounded like a plan!
Well, just about the time dinner was close to being ready, here comes Vchyslav with a transistor radio that was tuned to a Russian station featuring Ella Fitzgerald and he was about 7 sheets to the wind. So we ate dinner with Ella blasting on the table, as he would close his eyes and move like he was slow dancing, and jabbering with Ilya in Russian. At the appointed time I asked him if I could listen to Glenn Miller, so we went to his apartment where we listened to about 7 selections on one side of a tape, then I excused myself on cue and went back to Ilya’s…. with Vchyslav right on my heels. Oh well, the best laid plans…
“If you think education is expensive – try ignorance.”